How to ride, eat, tame, etc. your personal elephant


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How to achieve cooperation between the small, smart, conscious rider and the big, easily distracted, subconscious elephant in your mind.

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How to ride, eat, tame, etc. your personal elephant

  1. 1. How to ride, eat, tame, etc. your personal elephant Abe Gong Hill Street TED January 2012    This is a talk I gave at the annual "Hill Street TED" activity that my local congregation puts together. These are short talks in TED format, put together by members of the congregation to share aspects of their life and work that dont get talked about much at church.Here, Ive taken my slides from the talk, added a script, and revised the format to better fit the web. After going back and forth, I left in the Mormon references, even though I know some of them will be lost in translation. I also added a few slides based on comments and feedback from people at the talk. This let me put in more details and one-off ideas that just didnt fit into 10 minutes. Enjoy!Abe Gong : agong@umich.edu
  2. 2. Do you ever lose hours in your day?    Ive had days where Im riding the bus home, and I think "Where did all the time go? I know I rode this same bus in at 9am, and I know its 5pm now. So there must have been 8 hours in between. But I cant even remember what I did all day, and I certainly didnt get 8 hours worth of stuff done." For me, the feeling that comes next is always a sinking one: "Shoot. Now Im behind."By show of hands, almost everyone else has had this experience and this feeling.This talk is about nipping these sinking feelings in the bud. As a special bonus, there will be an elephant on *every slide*.
  3. 3. You dont need more time.    Let me start by striking off two suggestions that dont work. I know because Ive tried them. And because a lot of research and scripture says the same thing.First, you dont need more time. Each of us has 24 hours in a day. Wishing to have more time is like a basketball player wishing to have more arms. Sure, it might be useful, but theres no way to get more, so theres no use complaining about it.The question isnt how much time you have, but how to use that time effectively.
  4. 4. You dont need more willpower    Similarly, you dont need more willpower. This might be counterintuitive, but its true. Just like time, the question isnt how much willpower you have, but how to use it effectively.This may be surprising, so let me explain.
  5. 5. Your mind is like a guy riding an elephant. Conscious  decision­ making Subconscious  habits and  desires    Your mind -- yes, *your* mind -- is like a guy (or gal) riding an elephant. The rider is your conscious mind. This is where reasoning and willpower live. The elephant is your subconscious mind. This is where your habits and deep desires live, below the level of consciousness.The rider can see a long way off, think things through, and make plans. The elephant lives in the moment, reacting to things as they come up -- but its stronger. MUCH stronger.
  6. 6. You cant outpull the elephant.    When your conscious and subconscious disagree about what to do, the subconscious almost always wins. Using pure willpower, you can resist for a while -- fight the elephant -- but its exhausting. If the contest of wills goes on, youll almost always cave in the end.By the way, this idea -- in fact, this exact analogy -- is one of the major products of recent psychology. Lots of good research backs it up. Ill mention some of this research as I go along.
  7. 7. As King Benjamin might say... [T]he [elephant] is an enemy to God, ...  and will be, forever and ever, unless  he ... becometh as a child, submissive,  meek, humble, patient, full of love,  [and] willing to submit …    This duality also shows up in many religious texts. Here, Ive misquoted from the Book of Mormon. I think the gist of the quote is right, even if the text is a little different.You can probably think of other passages of scripture with similar themes. Paul has a lot of good, potentially elephant-themed counsel in the epistles. In Buddhist tradition, the elephant is sometimes used as a symbol of undisciplined passions.Just like time, the key is using the willpower you already have in effective ways.
  8. 8. Now, personal observations.    The rest of the talk is about ways of applying willpower that work for me. Ive been a grad student for 5 years now, which means Ive never had a boss. I once tried an experiment: not emailing my advisor, to see how long it would be before she contacted me. The answer: three months.Since there has never been another person responsible for keeping me on task, Ive given a lot of thought to managing my own workflow. Over time Ive put together a system helps me get stuff done and enjoy my work at the same time.Let me stress that these ideas work well for *me*. A lot of the details will probably be different for you. I hope that you can draw out principles that work for you, even if some of the specific practices dont.
  9. 9. Make detailed plans.    First, at the start of a project, and periodically as the project changes, I find it very helpful to make detailed plans.When Im planning, the rider is more likely to be in charge. (My elephant usually gets excited about puzzle-solving, and plays along very nicely.) When planning, I can see the whole scope of a project, and make good decisions about how to coordinate with coworkers and sequence my workflow.I can also flag places that are likely to be difficult, intimidating, or confusing -- places where the elephant is likely to need extra care. Most of the tactics I bring up later work better -- or only work -- if youve planned carefully up front.
  10. 10. Make detailed plans.    For example, this flowchart is the plan for the rest of my dissertation.In my field, a typical dissertation is a 200 to 300-page book. Im a slow writer, and without this plan, the idea of writing a 300 page book would be terrifying -- paralyzing. Id spend a lot of time thinking about starting to write; the elephant would feel scared and overwhelmed; and after a short while, my willpower would give out and Id go do something else to escape the stress.
  11. 11. Eat one bite at a time.    What Ive been describing is a classic task avoidance problem -- many people have elephants that are afraid of big tasks. If your subconscious is like that, its no good trying to push through them by force of will. Better to break the problem up into pieces that arent big enough to panic your subconscious.Careful, up-front planning lets you do this. With my flowchart in hand, I dont have to think about finishing a whole dissertation -- I can just focus on one piece at a time.
  12. 12. Corollary: limit your plate size    A corollary to "eat one bite at a time" is "limit your plate size." It turns out that human beings are not good at multitasking. For starters, our conscious minds can only attend to one thing at a time -- try talking to somebody while writing an email about something different -- so theres no such thing as true multitasking. The best we can do is rapidly switch back and forth.To make matters worse, switching is mentally taxing. It takes at least a few moments to re-orient your mind to the next task -- more if its a complex task with lots of details to remember. So if you switch too often, you end up wasting time and willpower going back and forth, like a person making a separate trip to the grocery store for each item. Some tasks are easier to switch between and some people are better at switching, but nobody is really good at it -- theres always a mental cost.
  13. 13. Corollary: limit your plate size    My elephant tends to get overwhelmed when I have too many projects going at once, so Ive made a firm rule about the number of projects Im allowed to have going at any given time.For me, the right number is about 2 active, and 3 in planning. You can see these categories on this state diagram: projects On hold move to In Planning, from there to Active, and from there (usually) to Success. Ive set up specific folders on my computer that reflect this pattern, and Im careful to always follow the rules.This might be overkill for other people, but it works really well for me. I know Im not allowed to start work on a new project until Ive moved the folder, and moving folders requires me to make a conscious decision -- one more chance for the rider to guide the elephant.
  14. 14. Corollary: limit your plate size    Side note: it seems that our subconscious minds *can* do more than one thing at a time. At least, your subconscious doesnt always think about the same thing your conscious mind is thinking about. So its helpful to be ready to record ideas as they bubble up from your subconscious. Projects ”in planning” fill that niche for me.
  15. 15. Measure and benchmark frequently When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back,  the rate of improvement accelerates. ­ Pres. Monson    Another good habit is to measure and benchmark your progress frequently. Just like planning, benchmarking is good practice because it gives you more chances to make conscious decisions and keep control of your elephant.Heres a quote from Thomas S. Monson (President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). I first read this quote when I was on my mission in Japan, and Ive taken it to heart in a really geeky way.
  16. 16. Make your progress visible    Ive written a special computer program that lives on the laptop where I do most of my work. Every 10 minutes, it checks my project folders to see if any files have been changed. This lets me see exactly when I was working on which projects.The text on the purple background is part of the log from the program. The bar chart shows how I spent my time in the last two weeks.Feedback like this is super useful, because it lets me see how much effort Im putting into each task – it gives me a way to see progress and feel good about my work, even when the ultimate goal is a long way away.
  17. 17. Reward yourself for small milestones.    Tracking my progress also lets me reward myself for small milestones – a good way to keep the rider and the elephant excited about going in the same direction.My elephant likes peanut butter crackers, playing with my kid, time on facebook, midafternoon walks outside in the sun, and permission to work on creative side projects. I use these things are small rewards to myself for getting things done.Its much easier to give myself enough (but not too many) rewards when I have a plan and track my progress.
  18. 18. For urgent projects, set deadlines    For high-pressure projects, stringent deadlines can help. They turn the project into a contest. My elephant is very competitive, so in the short run, deadlines help motivate me to get urgent things done.However, Ive found that constantly pushing to one tough deadline after another leaves me feeling burnt out. It doesnt work this way for everybody, but Ive discovered that too much time pressure makes me less productive, not more.
  19. 19. But be willing to forgive yourself.    The worst is when I miss a deadline. My subconscious elephant takes contests very seriously, so getting behind deadline is traumatic and stressful. When things pile up and I feel behind, it sometimes feels like the rider is carrying the elephant instead of the other way around.Fortunately, the solution is simple: forgive yourself. Ive found that when I make a conscious decision to just push the deadline back, my elephant unstresses and gets motivated again – often in a matter of minutes.This is a great example of using the conscious mind to guide the unconscious. The elephant works hard to make the deadline, but gets surly when it feels ”late.” Since my conscious mind knows that deadlines are often arbitrary, I can adjust them in ways that keep the elephant happy and productive.
  20. 20. Eliminate distractions    Okay, Ive talked about a lot of tactics to keep your conscious and subconscious minds in harmony. Let me finish with four more short ones.First, get rid of distractions. Attention is mostly a product of your subconscious mind. By definition, a distractions is something that diverts your attention, and gives the elephant a chance to break away in a new direction. Your rider will not be able to stay in charge when your attention is grabbed by one sight or sound after another.”Getting rid of distractions” means putting them in a place where they are in reach of your conscious mind, but dont constantly disturb your elephant.
  21. 21. Keep your elephant well fed.    Second, I said earlier that theres no way to get much more willpower. It turns out that there are ways to lose some of what you have, and being hungry is one of them.There was a fascinating (and scary!) study that showed that judges give harsher penalties immediately before lunch, and more lenient sentences afterwards. In other words, even mild hunger affects even judges judgement.Psychologists speculate that this effect of hunger on willpower is one of the reasons dieting is particularly hard resolution to keep.
  22. 22. Tune in to your creative side    Third, most people enjoy learning and creativity – consciously and subconsciously. Finding little ways to experiment and try new things as part of your routine can be a great way to get elephant and rider going in the same direction.
  23. 23. Make it a game    Finally, most elephants like a challenge. The last piece of my geeky time-tracking scheme is a game. Every day, I get points for finishing certain tasks, achieving certain milestones, and spending my time in certain ways. I came up with the rules myself, and change them whenever I see a need.The knowledge that Im competing with myself, minute by minute has been a surprisingly good motivator. In fact, my elephant is always nudging me to check the latest score – a small distraction, but worth it for the benefit of staying motivated about the tasks that my conscious rider has prioritized
  24. 24. Questions?  Comments?    Last thought. After the talk, a wise friend made a point that I really liked: "Everyones elephant is different. You have to get to know your elephant to know what will work for you.”Fittingly enough, this talk has helped me understand my personal elephant a little better. Going through the creative process (on a short deadline!) has helped me to work out a lot of ideas that have been at the back of my mind for a while. Its been a really fun, interesting, and useful bit of lifehacking for me – a good tag- team effort by rider and elephant.I hope youve come away with some valuable new ideas as well. Thanks!Abe Gong : agong@umich.edu